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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol was named the 2011-12 winner of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, the Professional Basketball Writers Association announced Friday.
The award, named after the second commissioner of the NBA, is presented annually by the PBWA to the player, coach or trainer who shows outstanding service and dedication to the community.
"It means a lot," Gasol said after the Lakers' shootaround on Friday in preparation for Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"I think it's a great honor for any player to receive it and get recognized for your off-the-court work and commitment. I think it's very encouraging to me and I think it should be to any player to have the opportunity to give back to their community, make the community better, be a role model to all the other kids and the rest of the people. I think it's real important when you have that opportunity that you maximize it for the betterment of others."
Gasol has a long history of charity work through various UNICEF causes. He has been a UNICEF ambassador for seven years, taking him all over the world to promote programs aimed at children's nutrition and education.
"Every time that I visited, it's been an experience that stayed with me," Gasol said, tearing up while recalling his memories with a group of reporters. "You always meet a patient or several patients that are very inspirational or get into you in a way that's shocking. So, every time there's a child, there's a family, there's several of them that are obviously facing a very tough situation, a very tough time in their lives and you're just there to contribute a little bit, make their day, get a smile out of them, inject them some strength, some energy so they can hopefully have a better chance. As much as you can do, nothing is really little. That's why I encourage everyone in their means to have an impact on somebody else's life."
Gasol also has a long-standing relationship with the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis that was established during his days playing for the Memphis Grizzlies. When the Lakers played in Memphis this season, Gasol made sure he paid a visit to the hospital.
"When the whole idea came out, I wanted to be on board and that was before the NBA had a partnership with it and then luckily it got bigger and it got better, and I think it's real important," Gasol said of the hospital's annual "Hoops for St. Jude" fundraiser. "Just like St. Jude, there are other organizations that need that kind of commitment and that kind of support too."
The PBWA is comprised of approximately 150 writers for newspapers, Internet services and magazines, who cover the NBA on a regular basis. Its members nominate finalists for the award.
The other finalists this year were Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks, Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks, and J.J. Redick of the Orlando Magic.
"Pau's work epitomizes all that is good about NBA players and their charitable works not only in their own communities but around the world," said PBWA president Doug Smith, who covers the Raptors for the Toronto Star. "Working to help children realize their potential and to provide them with opportunities they might not otherwise get truly characterizes outstanding service and dedication."
Last season, Lakers forward Metta World Peace won the award for his efforts to support mental health charities.
"I think it's great and unique that two players on the same team win it back to back," Gasol said. "It's great it's happened that way, but all the guys who were also finalists, I would congratulate them, too, and encourage them to keep doing what they have been doing."
Said Lakers coach Mike Brown: "Pau is a very, very gracious human being. It just speaks volumes of who he is as a person because the game of basketball, yes, we all have a great living from it. It's a game and we enjoy playing the game. But, at the end of the day, being a quality person? That's real life. So, I'm happy for him."
Gasol already has been highly decorated in his 11-year NBA career. He has two championship rings, four All-Star appearances, the Rookie of the Year award in 2002 and a FIBA World championship gold medal, as well as an Olympic silver medal. He said all of that cannot compare to his charity work.
"It fulfills a lot in me as a person, as a human being," Gasol said. "To me, that's above and beyond basketball. Obviously, basketball has allowed me to have these kind of opportunities and that's why I always feel so fortunate, but to me, it's much stronger, much more powerful than a basketball game."